Book Review: Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry, eds. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism

Hixson, Elijah and Peter J. Gurry, eds. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2019. 372 pp. Pb. $40.   Link to IVP Academic

In his foreword to this volume of essays on textual criticism, Daniel Wallace comments on the chasm between scholars and apologists. Apologists, Wallace suggests, have a tendency to regurgitate other apologetic works. As a result, skewed and wrong data on manuscripts of the New Testament gets passed along to pastors and teachers who present this data as fact. Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism attempts to correct these well-intentioned traditions among both popular apologists as well as other New Testament scholars. The essays in this volume are like much like D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies (Second Edition, Baker Academic, 1996). Most readers will recognize some of their own errors after reading Carson’s book; the same is true with Myths and Mistakes. After reading this book there are several places in my own lecture notes which need to be revised and corrected in the light of better, more accurate information.

Hixson and Gurry, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism

The authors of the essays want to avoid exaggerated claims for New Testament manuscripts as well as correct factual errors. In the introduction to the collection, As Peter J. Gurry and Elijah Hixson explain in their introduction, suggest “if we believe that God inspired the particular words of Holy Scripture, then it is incumbent on us to do our best to identify those words so that we can preach, teach, treasure, and obey them” (p. 25).  Hixson and Gurry offer examples of outdated information and abused statistics which are found in both academic and popular books on biblical manuscripts.

Timothy N. Mitchell discusses myths about the original autographs (ch. 2). It is unlikely any New Testament autographs still existed by the time of the earliest extant copies. Once a book circulated, the writing could not be significantly changed without those changes becoming known.

Jacob W. Peterson deals with how many New Testament manuscripts are extant (ch. 3). One problem with counting manuscripts is the total number of changes: new manuscripts are discovered and there are examples of double counting. Most manuscripts only contain portions of the New Testament, so the total number of early manuscripts of Mark (for example) is far less than the total number. Because of this, using round numbers for total manuscripts is important. Peterson argues more New Testament manuscripts as compared to other ancient literature is not necessarily better. Having 179 manuscripts from the tenth century is not necessarily as valuable as sixty-five manuscripts from the third century.

James B. Prothro discusses myths about Classical Literature (ch. 4). Apologists love to compare the New Testament manuscript evidence to other ancient literature. These statistical comparisons are often based on old data and only demonstrate the New Testament has better textual basis, but not a perfect one.

Elijah Hixson treats dating myths, specifically how scholars date New Testament manuscripts (ch. 5). There is a perception that the earliest manuscripts are more reliable. This motivates some apologists to date some papyri fragments as early as possible, sometimes making dramatic announcements before scholars have done their work. After surveying dating methods, Hixson uses the example of P52, a fragment of the Gospel of John often dated to about A.D. 125 (or earlier). Since the initial publication of the fragment, scholars have revisited the evidence and suggested dates as late as A.D. 200-225. Rather than give a specific date like A.D. 125, Hixson suggests a range of A.D. 100-200 as a “responsible date range” (p. 109).

Gregory R. Lanier deals with the myth that early manuscripts are always better manuscripts (ch. 6). This chapter deals with the Byzantine tradition, the later manuscripts which form the majority of ancient manuscripts available to scholarship. Early textual critics adopted a “later-is-worse” method and more or less considered the Byzantine tradition as secondary evidence for dating manuscripts. Lanier suggests later manuscripts may improve over time as later scribes correct earlier ones.  He uses the examples of the Pericope of the Adulterous Woman and the various endings for the Gospel of Mark as examples. In both cases, later scribes added comments expressing doubt for the authenticity of these additions.

Zachary J. Cole examines what we know about scribes in the Greco-Roman world to examine myths about the copyists of the earliest manuscripts (ch. 7). Overall, the earliest copyists were neither careless amateurs nor professionals. They demonstrate the same level of accuracy expected for any ancient text.

Peter Malik surveys the various ways scribes corrected mistakes (ch. 8). Beginning with P66, he offers several examples scribal corrections. Attention to these corrections can show how readers used the manuscript shedding light on intentional changes.

S. Matthew Solomon describes his collation of more that 570 manuscripts of Philemon copied before A.D. 700 in order to demonstrate the methods used by scholars (ch. 9). He concludes that even if we only had a copy of Philemon from more than nine hundred years after Paul wrote the letter, very little would change (p. 189). Although there are more variants than expected, most of the variants are insignificant.

Peter J. Gurry explains why most variants are insignificant and why other variants cannot be ignored (ch. 10). He begins with examples of large the number of variants in popular books on textual criticism, concluding that “around half a million” is a fair estimate, and most are “awfully boring for most Bible readers” (p. 209). Nearly half the number are meaningless and only a tiny fraction merits a footnote in major English translations. Nevertheless, there are a few dozen that are theologically important and need to be addressed by scholars using established textual critical practices.

What about these theologically significant variants? Critics like Bart Ehrman often claim scribes corrupted texts by changing the text to conform to orthodox theology. Robert D. Marcello deals with this so-called orthodox corruption (ch. 11). He observes Ehrman consistently considers the least orthodox reading to be the original, and the most orthodox to a corruption. Although it may be the case an orthodox change is in fact a corruption, presupposing the orthodox to be a corruption is methodologically suspicious. After examining a few examples of orthodox corruptions, Marcello concludes scribes did sometimes make theologically motivate changes, but some of these variants can be explained by other factors (p. 227).

Andrew Blaski addresses the issue from the perspective of patristics. What did the Church Fathers thought about textual variations (ch. 12). He begins with an oft-repeated claim that compiling the 32,289 quotations found in the church fathers, we could reconstruct the New Testament with the exception of eleven verses. Blaski traces the origin of this folk-tale and concludes it is a myth and should be dropped as an apologetic argument. The church fathers refer to the New Testament in a variety of way and rarely cite it verbatim. As anyone who examines the apparatus in the UBS5 knows, a given church father may be evidence for two or three different variants.

John D. Meade observes that while the codex was preferred by early Christians for canonical books, just because a book was included in a codex does not mean it was canonical (ch. 13). He surveys canonical lists and early Christian descriptions of their literature. This chapter includes several valuable charts collating the date and contents of codices.

The final two chapters of the volume concern translations. First, Jeremiah Coogan discusses the number of early New Testament translations and their value for textual criticism (ch. 14). He doubts there are ten thousand Latin manuscripts as is often claimed, the number may be fewer than one thousand. The chapter also surveys Syriac translations (with several photographs of manuscripts). Second, Edgar Battad Ebojo looks at how modern translations report variants of the New Testament (ch. 15). This is an important issue since footnotes are where most Bible readers will encounter textual variants. For example, when does a translation use brackets to indicate textual variants and when do they use footnotes? How does a modern Bible print John 7:53-8:11 or the long ending of Mark?

The book concludes with a thirty-one-page bibliography and several helpful indices, including an index of manuscripts.

Conclusion. This book is a positive step toward increased clarity on textual critical issues from experts in the field who are interested in helping Christians to avoid “believing what they want to be true” about the state of the New Testament manuscripts (p. 25). Although these essays may be unsettling for some readers, the goal of defending the Bible’s integrity calls for integrity on the part of apologists and critics alike.

Elijah Hixson and Peter J. Gurry are contributes to the popular blog Evangelical Textual Criticism.

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts, Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism

Porter, Stanley E. and Andrew W. Pitts. Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015. 202 pp. Pb; $22.   Link to Eerdmans

This new introduction to New Testament textual Criticism is intended as a companion to Porter’s Fundamentals of New Testament Greek (with Jeffrey T. Reed and Matthew Brook O’Donnell, Eerdmans 2010). Porter laments the lack of an intermediate textual criticism handbook for use on college or seminary classrooms. Metzger or Aland is too detailed for many students, others are too brief (Black or Greenlee, for example). In addition, textual discoveries often render the data in a handbook out of date, so new editions are always necessary.

Porter_Fundamentals of NT Textual Criticism_wrk 03.inddThere are some sections of the book which are similar to other textual criticism handbooks. After a brief chapter introducing textual criticism, there are chapters on materials used for making manuscripts, types of manuscript evidence (papyri, majuscules, minuscules, lectionaries, versions and patristic quotations) and text-types. These chapters are brief and accompanied by charts illustrating key manuscripts in each category. In general this material is presented clearly, although there is little in this section which sets this textbook apart from others.

There are four chapters dedicated to method. First, Porter and Pitts survey four modern methods (stemmatic, Byzantine/Majority text, eclectic methods, and a single text model). Although the stemmatic/genealogical methods have become popular in recent years, Porter and Pitts conclude that only reasoned eclecticism can provide objectivity for determining the original reading of a text (96).

Chapter 8 concerns weighing external evidence, including date, text-type and geographical distribution. The authors place a priority on external evidence for determining a reading, weighing the date and text-type, geographical distribution and genealogical relationships. The strongest reading, they conclude, is “supported by the oldest manuscripts representing the widest geographical spread and having no genealogical relationship” (108).

Internal evidence is divided into two sections (chapters 9 and 10). The first section deals with “transcriptional probabilities” (including eight scribal errors). In this chapter Porter and Pitts deal with the traditional rules of textual criticism, more difficult reading, shorter vs. longer readings, harmonization and more difficult grammar. While they do recognize there are some doctrinal changes made in the copying process, “theological tampering was not typical” and should only be appealed to if all other canons of textual criticism fail (120). Here they have Bart Erhman’s Misquoting Jesus in view. Because of the popularity of that particular book, there Porter and Pitts discuss several examples from Erhman’s book cited as evidence for doctrinal changes.

A second chapter on internal evidence deals with the “intrinsic probabilities” such as the author’s style, theological and literary coherence, linguistic and source consistency. This is a far more subjective method and requires a great deal from the text critic in terms of familiarity with Greek grammar used by authors.

There are a few features which I found helpful which are not common in other textual criticism textbooks. First, Porter and Pitts include a chapter on canon (ch. 2). To a certain extent this material seems extraneous to the method of textual criticism. I am not sure they make a clear connection between their interesting discussion of the development of the canon and the process of textual criticism. A professor could easily omit it without losing the argument of the book, although from my experience students often have questions about canon at this point in their Greek training.

Second, they include two very useful chapters on the development of the Nestle-Aland and UBS texts.  Chapter 12 is particularly good for professors since it describes how to use both the NA27/28 and the UBS4/5. The book is therefore a good resource regardless of the chosen Greek New Testament chose by the professor. The story of how the two major critical editions developed is more than interesting, this section places the activity of textual criticism into its proper place in church history.

Third, the book includes a helpful summary of translation strategies as they relate to textual criticism (chapter 13). The chapter includes lists of the various abbreviations and marginalia of both editions. Page 148 has a photograph of a page from the NA28 Greek New Testament with arrows identifying everything on the page; page 163 does the same for the UBS4. For some students, this chapter alone will be worth the price of the book.

Each chapter has a list of key terminology and a useful bibliography. There are a handful of B&W illustrations in the chapter on materials. These could be expanded greatly, perhaps with a section of illustrations. I assume these are limited in order to keep the cost of the book lower for students. Ideally Eerdmans could provide illustrations by way of color PowerPoint slides in a teacher’s supplement. One additional resource I would like to see in a textbook such as this are a series of assignments included as a part of the methodology chapters. For example, after introducing the various kinds of scribal errors, it would be very helpful to have a sheet of examples for students to work through and identify the variants. After learning the method of weighing internal evidence, I would like to have several pages of examples so students can work through evidence and make some textual determinations for themselves.

Conclusion. I have used J. Harold Greenlee’s small handbook for many years to supplement Bill Mounce’s Graded Reader from Zondervan in a third semester Greek class. I share same frustrations expressed by Porter about both brevity and datedness. I plan on using this book next year for third semester Greek and intro to Textual Criticism.

Porter and Pitts have written a useful textbook which incorporates additional material the smaller handbooks cannot, yet is still accessible for early Greek students. The information in this handbook will be valuable to anyone reading the Greek New Testament.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

The UBS Greek New Testament, Fifth Edition with the NIV

I just received  the new UBS Greek New Testament, Fifth Edition with the NIV in the mail today from Zondervan.  I obviously have not spent much time with the books since it is only just released, but I will offer a few “first impressions.” This is not a Greek Readers Bible or an interlinear, but a full edition of the newest text from the United Bible Society and the latest edition of the NIV (2011). If you like those two editions of the New Testament, you will likely like this new Bible.

UBS 5 with NIV 02

First, when the volume was announced my immediate question was about the textual critical apparatus. I was worried these extremely important notes would be sacrificed in order to print two New Testaments in a handy format. Thankfully the notes are all present and in exactly the same format as the other editions of the UBS Greek New Testament. I did not check every page, but every note I checked was present. I would not have recommended the Bible if the textual notes were removed.

UBS 5 with NIV 03Second, the UBS 5 text is placed on one page facing the NIV. Since the UBS text includes textual critical apparatus, the English side has about a third of a page blank (sometimes a half page). This is a good space for note-taking!

Third, I think the physical size and shape of the Bible are an improvement over my UBS 4. The paper is a bright white, by UBS 4 was a kind of cream color. I am not sure which I like better, but the print (both in terms of color and typeface) in this new edition is very readable and clear.  The book is the same size as the older Bible although it is 1750 pages (plus another 81 pages in the introduction) compared to the UBS 4’s 918 (plus another 203 for the glossary in the case of my UBS 4).

The Introduction includes prefaces to the first through fourth editions and the introduction to the fifth edition (74 pages) and the Preface to the NIV (7 pages).

UBS 5 with NIV 01

One thing I noticed was missing—there was no card with manuscript dates! The information appears in the introduction, but I miss the traditional trifold card tucked into the front of my Bible. The spine of my Bible is off-center, which might be a trigger for some of the more OCD Greek specialists.

Overall I am well-pleased with the new UBS Greek New Testament with the NIV. Those who are do not like the NIV will probably not appreciate this combination appealing, but for many this will be their new Greek Bible of Choice. It will make a good textbook Bible for Greek reading classes, although students should be issued screens to cover the NIV translation for doing their homework.


New Addition to the Family

New Addition to the Family


Book Review: Philip Comfort, A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament.

Comfort, Philip Wesley. A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Text of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2015. 443 pp. Hb. $29.99.  Link to Kregel

Philip Comfort is well known for his many publications on New Testament textual criticism and especially for his work with papyri. His latest contribution is a running commentary on the text of the New Testament with a special emphasis on evidence drawn from the papyri. While it is not required that this commentary should be used along with Comfort’s early work The Complete Text of the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts (with David Barrett, Baker, 1999) or his revision and expansion in The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Tyndale, 2001).

Comfort CoverThis new commentary is similar to Bruce Metzger’s companion volume to the United Bible Society Greek New Testament. Metzger only commented on the variants as they appear in the UBS textual apparatus by giving a brief report of the reasoning behind the committee’s decision. Occasionally there is a dissenting opinion from one of the editors of the UBS. Metzger’s goal is to explain why a particular reading is more likely than another. There are two editions of Metzger’s Textual commentary, the first comments on the variants in the third edition of the UBS Greek New Testament, the second is keyed to the fourth UBS Greek Bible. Since there are many variants no longer listed in the fourth edition, it is necessary to have both volumes available.

Comfort offers a 23-page introduction to the manuscripts of the New Testament. As expected, his main interest is the papyri, especially several examples he considered to represent the original reading of the New Testament. Although he briefly discusses Epp’s canons of internal textual criticism, Comfort gives priority to manuscript evidence (31). In addition to prioritizing the papyri, Comfort is one of the few text critics to give the nomina sacra, abbreviations of sacred words in the manuscripts. Words such as Lord, Jesus, Christ, and God are regular written as a shortened form of the word with a line over the letters to indicate an abbreviation. A significant section of the introductory chapter and an appendix are devoted to the importance of these sacred words.

The second introductory chapter is an 83-page annotated list of manuscripts of the New Testament. Entries include the designation of the manuscript, original publication (editio princeps) and current location. Comfort then suggests a date for the manuscript along with a brief explanation of this date where necessary. Finally, Comfort offers an assessment of the manuscript for textual criticism. For p2, he states the Greek-Coptic manuscript is too small to assess textual affinities,” for others he concludes they contain “fairly reliable texts” (p70, for example). Comfort includes 127 papyri listed in the UBS/NA editions as well as four others not assigned an official number (Egerton Gospel, for example). He offers similar annotations for significant Uncial manuscripts (Sinaticus, Vaticanus, etc) and a few minuscules (usually families). He offers short introductions to versions (translations) and a simple list of key church fathers. Except for the papyri, this is not a complete list and Comfort suggests Aland for a comprehensive introduction.

Since this book is not tied any one edition of the Greek New Testament, Comfort’s comments are on readings found in the manuscripts rather than why one reading is preferable to another. Since his comments are brief, he is able to list more variants than appear in the UBS textual apparatus. Using John 1 as an example, the UBS text lists variants in verses 3-4, 4, two in 13, 18, 19, 21, 26, 28, 34, 41, and 42. Comfort’s commentary only includes two of these variants, but includes eight other variants, all of which are found in the NA edition. With the exception of verse 18, all his comments are brief observations citing the nature of the variant as well as the presence of a nomina sacra. For significant textual problems such as the long ending of Mark, John 7:53-8:11, or the doxology in Romans 16:23, Comfort offers a more extended discussion.

Despite the fact the book is a commentary on Greek manuscripts, all Greek is transliterated and variants are cited in English. A typical entry begins with the reference followed by an English translation of what Comfort takes to be the original wording of the text in question. Following this heading Comfort offers support from the manuscripts, versions or church fathers. These explanations are brief and to the point, making it easy for a student to check variants as the read their Greek Bible.

This is a sharp looking book designed to be a companion of the UBS and NA28 Greek New Testaments. It is well-bound and printed on thin but quality paper with a sewn in book-mark (like a Bible). Since it is designed to be used as a manual, Kregel should be thanked for printing the book with durable materials.

Conclusion. Philip Comfort’s method for evaluating manuscripts will not appeal to everyone who works in textual criticism. Some of his early books were heavily criticized for being overly optimistic about papyri manuscripts and dating some of these texts too early. But that sort of critique is typical of people who do textual criticism. The two introductory chapters are a convenient collection of material which will aid anyone trying to make sense of a textual variant. There are very few books on textual criticism which give such an important place to identifying nomina sacra. Since the commentary is based on English with all Greek in transliteration, a layperson with limited Greek skills can use this volume without too much difficulty.

Metzger’s textual commentaries will still be the first off my shelf, but this resource from Comfort will be a close second.

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.




John 7:53-8:11 – Preachable, but is it Authentic?

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is an commonly quoted text encouraging grace and forgiveness, even a kind of inclusiveness in the church. But the authenticity of the story in 7:53-8:11 is disputed. It is hard to separate the potential “preachability” of this text from the rather academic textual questions. It is important to realize at the outset that Jesus was in fact accepting of sinners and forgave sinners, including well-known adulterous women. But does this text reflect an authentic episode from the life of Jesus?

This story is often dismissed as non-canonical based on its very poor manuscript evidence. There are no major Greek manuscripts prior to the 8th century that include the story except Codex Bezae, possible the most free of all the uncials. It is known in the Old Latin versions, indicating that the story was known in the western church. There are many ninth century Byzantine texts that include the story, but often with an indication by the scribe that the story was doubtful. It is missing in all major Greek manuscripts and in all eastern versions and eastern fathers, as well as the earliest lectionaries.

Internal evidence is not much better. The location of the story shifts from John 7:53 to the end of John, to after Luke 21:38 (the Farrar group) or Luke 24:53 (a corrector of manuscript 1333). Like most commentators, Burge thinks the story fits awkwardly in the flow of John’s gospel, possibly explaining the wide variety of placements within the New Testament. The twelve verses of the story have the highest rate of major text variants in the New Testament (Burge, 144).

Even with this overwhelming evidence against authenticity, there are several scholars willing to accept the story as authentic, but that it remained outside the canon until the fourth century. Burge offers several reasons that might have lead to the suppression of the story as an authentic Jesus story: the ethics of early Christianity took very seriously the demand for perfection (as expressed in Ephesians 4:17-24, for example, cf. The Didache). Sexual sin was even more severely disciplined in the early church. This is most likely a reaction to the particular sexual excess of the Roman world. Burge cites the text of the Acts of Paul, an apocryphal book written well into the Christian era, as an example of how strong attitudes were concerning sexual immorality.

The problem for the study of the canon is this: If it is authentic and if it was somehow detached from John or was a separately circulating oral tradition that managed to be written at some point and slowly accepted by the church as authentic, what to we do with it? Protestantism has always understood the books of the Bible to be “self authenticating.” Biblical books are inspired and the church recognizes them as such. If the overwhelming textual evidence indicates that the story is an insertion, then this story cannot be canonical even if it is authentic. For this reason many commentaries, even from evangelicals with a commitment to biblical inspiration and inerrancy, do not include the text in their discussion of the canonical Gospel of John.

N. T. Wright suggests that the story became associated with the beginning of John 8 to explain the harsh critique of the Judeans later in chapter 8. The woman is used by these teachers and scribes to try and trap Jesus into either dismissing a clear teaching of the Law and forgiving adultery or contradicting his usual practice of forgiveness (Wright, John for Everyone, Part 1, 112). This is as good a reason as any for the association of the story with John, although there is little evidence for the suggestion.

I think the story is consistent with the description of Jesus in Gospels, but especially in John’s gospel. Jesus talked with the woman at the well in John 4. Even though she was in an adulterous relationship he offered her “living water” and forgiveness. There is nothing this story which strikes me as out of character for Jesus and the story does explain a shift in John’s gospel toward an intentionally hostile conflict between Jesus and the Judeans.

What do you think about the non-canonical status of this story? Is it possible to have an authentic story about Jesus that is non part of the Gospel of John? Is the theology of this story really consistent with John’s presentation of Jesus?


Bibliography:  Gary M.  Burge,“A Specific Problem In The New Testament Text And Canon: The Woman Caught In Adultery (John 7:53-8:11)” JETS 27 (1984): 141-148.


Videos from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts on iTunes

Jim West tweeted a notice about these videos from Dan Wallace’s Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscript project.  I happened to notice that the Center is listed in the iTunesU opening screen this week, hopefully this will generate some interest in the work CSNTM is doing.

Open iTunes and select “powersearch.”  Change the box from “all results” to “iTunesU” and enter “Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.” the abbreviation CSNTM does not work.  There are twenty free videos from the Center on various Textual Critical issues.  You can click on the word “free” or subscribe to the collection.  The videos are short, as little as 3  minutes, as long as 18 minutes.  There are six categories, each with a few videos:

  • The Basics of New Testament Textual Criticism (10 videos)
  • Pioneers of the Trade (2 videos)
  • Disputed New Testament Passages (2 videos)
  • Famous Manuscripts and the Stories Behind Them (2 videos)
  • Scribal Methods and Materials (2 videos)
  • An Insider’s Look into the Work of CSNTM (2 videos)

I watched the short video (5:45) on the “Discovery of p52″ in the “Famous Manuscripts” collection.  The file is 202MB so plan on taking a few minutes to download the longer videos.  There is no streaming option, but I prefer to have the fine on my computer or iPad anyway.  The production is very good, alternating between Wallace’s explanation and power-point like screens. I am a bit annoyed by the piano music in the background, but otherwise this is a very informative video for both laymen and scholar.

I plan on using some of these videos in by Greek classes.